BLUFFTON, S.C. – If the Players Amateur were a collegiate event, Vanderbilt could field two teams and still throw out a score. The nine-man Commodores fleet at Berkeley Hall this week far outnumbers any other collegiate team, which is notable considering that nearly every player in this 78-man event has a college allegiance listed beside his name.
In an invitation-only event, at which one of the perks is that players do not pay an entry fee, it begs an obvious question.
How did so many of you get in?
“I’m not sure,” senior Jordan Janico said with a smile after the round. Janico, in the fifth group off the No. 1 tee Thursday morning, returned a 1-over 73 at Berkeley Hall Golf Club. He waited eagerly for teammates Zach Jaworski in the group behind him and defending champion Hunter Stewart in the group behind that.
Shortly after noon on a muggy Deep South day, Janico’s 73 had him near the top of the leaderboard, but it’s tough to beat Stewart at Berkeley Hall. Stewart made four birdies and a bogey Thursday for a 3-under 69. A year ago at this event, the personable Kentuckian got to 14 under through 54 holes and won by one shot when rain wiped out the final round. Stewart said that victory “validated me as a player” and helped build his confidence for this return trip.
“I just like it,” Stewart said of Berkeley Hall. “It just fits my eye.”
He has played the course so many times that he doesn’t even carry a yardage book anymore.
Stewart also highlights this week because of the logistics. The Players has gotten a strong Vanderbilt turnout for the past three years, and Stewart, for one, loves it. Teammate John Voetsch’s family has a home at Berkeley Hall, thus creating the perfect location for a bevy of college boys to spend a week golfing and bonding. That house is known affectionately this week as Camp Voetsch.
As for Janico, the past year and a half has marked a return to the top of a game he loves. Janico was a hotly recruited junior out of Duluth, Ga., but he underwent surgery for torn labrums on both hips in 2012. The surgeries were four months apart, and gave Janico a lot of time to think, to get to know new head coach Scott Limbaugh and focus on a degree in economics at academically rigorous Vanderbilt.
“It was a huge blessing for me to have those surgeries to spend some time with him,” said Janico, who redshirted after his freshman season.
Limbaugh brought a fresh perspective to the Vanderbilt program when he was hired in June 2012. As Janico notes, players know what is expected of them. Limbaugh is social, personable and hands-on.
Just two players destined for Vanderbilt’s fall roster aren’t at Berkeley Hall. Sophomore Matthias Schwab is home in Austria this week, and incoming freshman Theo Humphrey is playing the AJGA Wyndham Cup. On paper, an 11-man roster might look unusually long. As Limbaugh says, however, it’s good depth.
Consider the past few weeks. Senior Ben Fogler qualified for the U.S. Amateur on July 8, and juniors Voetsch and Spencer Ciesla posted even-par 72 to open the Players. Last month, Stewart missed the cut at the U.S. Open by one shot.
Good depth carried Vanderbilt through the spring. When Schwab went out early in the spring with a stress fracture in his lower back, Limbaugh thinks his team might have been scratched off the list of contenders. Schwab had been Vanderbilt’s best player.
“I just challenged the guys,” Limbaugh said. “This program will not be built around one person or one player. Any time you have a program where somebody goes down, somebody better step up. To our credit, our guys stepped up.”
Most notably, Stewart. Limbaugh watched as Stewart found out for himself what it meant to be a leader, and in the coming year, his team will need that. It also will need this week and these memories.
“Our guys, they enjoy being around each other,” Limbaugh said. “When it gets hard times during the year, we have those kinds of things to fall back on. That’s what we want our team to be about.”
Vanderbilt won twice in the 2013-14 season on its way to a final Golfweek/Sagarin ranking of No. 14. The Commodores also finished third at the NCAA Regional in San Antonio and advanced to the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2007. It’s that week that gives Stewart the most hope for the upcoming college season. Vanderbilt had a shot at a top-eight finish (which would have given the Commodores a spot on the match-play bracket) entering the final nine holes of national-championship stroke play. In the end, however, the team slid to 16th.
Bump Stewart to a leadership role left vacant by the graduation of Charlie Ewing, return Schwab to the lineup, add promising freshman Humphrey and a rejuvenated Janico and Vanderbilt looks strong for the fall.
“I think this year we will go into the season expecting to be a great team and knowing what we can do,” Stewart said. “I feel like last year we had a little bit of success and we did some good things, but we really didn’t get to our full potential.”
With so many horses in the race at Berkeley Hall, to be the low Commodore after 72 holes will be no small feat. Fortunately for Stewart, a 69 gives him an early head start. For Janico, there are other competitions going on at Camp Voetsch: pingpong, pool and shark fishing among them.
Yes, shark fishing.
“I think Jordan kind of leads that contingent,” said Stewart, whom you’ll find sitting comfortably in a rocking chair, soaking in a week with the guys.
At Berkeley Hall, it’s good to be a Commodore.